The asterisk is old. Really old. Granted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bringhurst claims in the otherwise impeccable Elements of Typographic Style1 (Bringhurst confuses it with a star-like cuneiform mark that represents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two millennia under its belt nonetheless. I go into greater detail in the Shady Characters book, but the abridged version of the asterisk’s origin story goes something like this.
We’ve come a long way, 👶, in this series of posts on emoji, and it’s time to round things up.
We’ve seen how emoji were invented, where they came from, and how they went global. We’ve examined the technical and political infrastructure that underpin the emoji we see on our smartphones and computer screens, and we’ve watched emoji transcend their electronic roots to appear in the news, in the courts, in the movies, and more.
Given all we’ve seen so far in this series, it becomes natural to wonder: what’s next for emoji? And how do we even begin to answer that question?
We saw in part 7 that emoji are neither a language nor a script. But if we might be permitted for a moment to call them script-like, then, of all of the scripts and script-like things that we use to communicate online, emoji were perhaps the first to be native to the digital world. They were born to inject life into Japan’s teen-friendly poke beru, or pagers; later, they were adopted by Apple, Google, and other companies who have made their money online; and, under the care of the Unicode Consortium, they continue to be tended to by a group of nerds of the highest order. (As a software engineer by trade, I say that with the greatest respect.)
With emoji everywhere you might care to look, a nagging question remains unanswered. What are emoji? Are they a language, whatever that means? A pictographic script in the manner of hieroglyphics or Chinese characters? Or are they something else entirely? In this post we examine how emoji are, and aren’t, used, and what that might tell us about the nature of emoji as a whole.
As we saw last time, Emoji 4.0 cemented the Unicode Consortium’s practice of annual emoji updates. In doing so it created the phenomenon of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick apart the new emoji that will soon arrive on smartphones and computers and then go back to their usual business. Emoji season has come to be defined by the major theme of the accompanying emoji update: 2015’s Emoji 1.0 added skin tone support, while 2016’s Emoji 4.0 brought a more equitable treatment of male and female emoji. Now, in May 2017, Emoji 5.0 added the concept of gender-neutral emoji.1